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Yaser Ishtaiwi was 1,100 miles from Fort Hood, Texas, last week when a gunman opened fire at the military post, killing 13 comrades and wounding 29 more. ¶ Working from his office in Plymouth, Ishtaiwi never heard the gunfire or the screams. He never saw the blood. But when the 17-year veteran of the Minnesota National Guard learned that the alleged gunman -- Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- was Muslim, he soon realized that the rampage would have implications for Muslims everywhere, especially in the U.S. military.
"That's when I became so concerned about backlash," said Ishtaiwi, 43, who was born a Muslim in the Middle East and now lives in Spring Lake Park. "No doubt at all, it does make you look bad. I defend Muslims, but at the same time, when they do something wrong, I cannot defend them. I have to condemn that action.''Authorities don't know what might have motivated Hasan, an Army psychiatrist who was facing deployment overseas, to kill. In recent days, they have pursued a possible connection with a radical cleric in Yemen who authorities say is linked to Al-Qaida.
Yet, regardless of why the shots were fired, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey said this week that he fears the killings will create a backlash against Muslims, especially those in the military, that could linger for years.
Ishtaiwi and others in the local and national Muslim community agree.
"It doesn't make things better, that's for sure," said Ziad Amra, a local member of the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, headquartered in Washington.
"As to the long-term damage, if any, maybe it's just too soon to tell," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on America-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group, also based in Washington. "Maybe you won't see any damage if people are more reluctant to go into the military, or if they are thinking about it. Maybe they won't join, and you won't know.
"But it may not be something that's obvious until years from now."
Although Muslims have long volunteered for U.S. military service, their role and relationship with the armed forces has become more visible since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Currently, the number of Muslims in the U.S. military is relatively small -- about 3,550 soldiers out of 1.4 million who serve, according to figures released by the Pentagon. But the actual number is probably higher, because soldiers aren't required to disclose religious background, military officials say.
The military trains officers to be sensitive to Muslim culture, but Ishtaiwi says that sometimes isn't enough after an incident such as Fort Hood.
"I'm not saying there would be any organized retaliation, but somebody will not be happy about what happened, and he might want to vent his anger against somebody," Ishtaiwi said. "It might be a single incident."
Amra, whose parents are of Palestinian descent, said that from what he has read, the shootings appear to be the actions of "a deranged person acting out in a crazy way. There are things that point to the fact that this guy was harassed, and all kinds of incidents that pointed to the fact that he was a loner, he didn't have friends of any kind, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. There were a variety of incidents that happened to him. He didn't want to go [overseas to fight]. And obviously, his reaction indicates to all of us that this is just something of a sick person."
Gandi Mohamed, 28, a Somali businessman in south Minneapolis and Muslim who served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000 to 2008, said the anxiety before being deployed can be overwhelming. He said he experienced it before he was sent to Amman, Jordan, as part of the war in Iraq.
"I had a real problem with that for the fact that you are going to go overseas and be shot at," Mohamed said. "It's not about being Muslim. It's anyone going there for the first time would be in extreme fear. You are going to go fight and be shot at. There's tremendous anxiety in that. But not enough to lose it, especially when you are a psychiatrist."
A matter of perception
Nevertheless, Amra fears that in a post 9/11 world, the incident will fuel perceptions by some that "all Muslims in this country are potential terrorists or Al-Qaida members who are just lying in wait to do something like this. ... They see this as a battle of civilizations and religions, and this just adds to the ammunition for that."
Amra said those perceptions "fly in the face" of a long history of U.S. military service by Muslims, including those of his father, who served as a physician and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.
"He operated on wounded soldiers for two years," Amra said. "And he saved innumerable lives during that conflict. And he did that voluntarily. He's one example of probably thousands who are sort of not mentioned because they just do their jobs, and then they go home. And that's what people need to remember. Because there are countless examples of fellow soldiers killing other soldiers. ...It's not exclusive to one group, one religion, one people. And we have to keep that in mind. Everything needs to be put in perspective."
While Ishtaiwi and others worry about backlash, Mohamed said he is less concerned, based on his military experience.
"You do hear some stories that some guys are profiled and treated badly," he said. "But I had the best experience of my life in the Air Force. All of the men I served with did not have any prejudice against Muslims. And I have not experienced any prejudice. If anything, I felt more welcome. And as a matter of fact, I was more trusted because I didn't drink any alcohol. I was always the responsible one."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425